One of the nation’s most distinguished centers of interdisciplinary research, the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, has been renamed the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought after its founder, an economic historian at the University.
The naming recognizes Nef’s role in conceiving and guiding the committee as well as the financial support the committee has received since its founding from Nef, who died in 1988, and later from his wife, Evelyn Stefansson Nef. The University celebrated their contributions at a dinner in Mrs. Nef’s honor on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
“The University of Chicago has been a leader in establishing interdisciplinary scholarship. The Committee on Social Thought is a home for this scholarship at the highest level,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “Research in the committee connects students and faculty with multiple disciplines, incorporating analysis of texts and ideas fundamental to the origins of our culture through those of the current day. In so doing, the work of the committee provides a fresh understanding to persistent questions that confront society, such as what is just, what is moral, and what role religion plays in organizing society. Students pursue these and other questions with the distinguished set of scholars who make up the committee faculty.”
“This naming also allows us to recognize another remarkable aspect of the committee. Its work was underwritten from the beginning through the generosity of its founder,” said Provost Thomas Rosenbaum. “Seldom does a faculty member have the opportunity to both guide and support financially such a spectacular enterprise. John U. Nef’s widow, Evelyn Stefansson Nef, has continued that support, allowing the committee to flourish. We are truly grateful for this wonderful commitment.”
The couple’s gifts total nearly $9 million and have been used for a variety of purposes, including to support student fellowships and to create two named chairs, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professorship and the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professorship.
Some of the country’s leading intellectuals have been associated with the committee, including the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, political philosophers Allan Bloom and Hannah Arendt, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Von Hayek. The late Francois Furet, one of France’s leading intellectuals, was a member of the committee as was John Coetzee, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
The committee, which was founded in 1941, continues Nef’s original commitment to providing a place where scholars can pursue fundamental issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, said Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in Social Thought and Chair of the committee.
The committee prepares students for serious study of many academic topics, beginning with a thoughtful examination of a wide range of philosophical, historical, theological and literary works, Pippin said. Students use that scholarship, as well as work with modern texts, in an inter-disciplinary atmosphere, and then begin work on dissertation topics.
Those topics are wide-ranging and Mrs. Nef has visited Chicago frequently to listen to students discuss their work, he said. Among the recent topics are Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama (about the performance of Shakespeare in Cairo), The Contest of Regimes and the Problem of Justice: Political Lessons from Aristotle’s Politics, and Nietzsche’s “Fantastic Commentary: On the Problem of Self-Knowledge.”
“The students seem to get brighter and brighter every year. It’s such a pleasure to talk with them,” Mrs. Nef said. “The faculty always dazzle me because of their brilliance. I think the quality of the committee improves from year to year.”
Mrs. Nef said that her husband “invested everything he had intellectually in the committee. It was his ideal. Seldom in life do we get to have a vision and then see it fulfilled. He would be very proud to see what the committee has become.”
Pippin praised Mrs. Nef for her continued interest in the committee. “Evelyn Nef has been singularly responsible for many years for keeping the Committee on Social Thought viable. Through her foundation, she has supported student fellowships, student travel, and also provided funds for dissertation fellowships.
“She frequently comes back to Chicago to visit with faculty and students. Evelyn is an extremely engaging and perceptive person and students have always enjoyed talking with her about their academic projects. She has become a kind of godmother to several generations of students.
“Evelyn’s interest in the committee is connected with her interest in the arts. She has always been an important philanthropist for the arts and for other areas of culture, and that interest, as well as her interest in academic projects, took a number of new directions after her marriage with John Nef.
“All of us in the Committee are profoundly grateful to Mrs. Nef for her generosity. Her support is evidence of her own commitment to the life of the mind as well as being a great tribute to the vision of her late husband.”
John Nef joined the University’s economics faculty in 1929. He was the author of more than 25 books, including the classic The Rise of the British Coal Industry. His other significant works included The United States and Civilization, War and Human Progress, Cultural Foundations of Industrial Civilization and his memoirs, Search for Meaning: An Autobiography of a Nonconformist.
In 1961, Nef established the Center for Human Understanding in Washington, D.C., as an offshoot of the Committee on Social Thought. With international and interdisciplinary interests, it was designed to operate as a “world university.”
Among Nef’s friends were many influential leaders and artists, including Marc Chagall, who visited the University as a guest of the Committee on Social Thought in 1958.
Nef had a broad range of academic interests that were reflected in the committee. He explained the purpose of founding the committee as a way for students to connect contemporary ideas with classical scholarship.
“Students are expected to gain an understanding of philosophy, which will permit them to make use of all new and particular knowledge in relation to human happiness conceived as a whole, both for individual human beings and for societies,” he once wrote.
“Students are expected to gain an understanding of history, which will enable them to recognize how all sides of human activity are interrelated. They are expected, further, by combination of study and practice, to acquire the good taste and form in their writing and discussion which will enable them to make the most effective use of their discoveries.”
Mrs. Nef has been engaged with many interdisciplinary projects as well, and has been a patron of the arts in addition to scholarship. During the 1930s, she was an active participant in the theatrical and literary worlds of New York.
Beginning in 1939, she managed the private library of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whom she married in 1941. She became an editor, researcher and writer and an authority on the Far North.
After Stefansson’s death, she moved to Washington, D.C. and married John Nef. In addition to sharing his interests in art and friendship with Chagall, she developed an interest in psychotherapy and practiced in that field until she was 80.